jobs

Last week, I received an email on a subject that caught my attention: “20 Outdated Occupations That Have Bitten the Dust.”

Given my propensity to focus on life in the past, I thought this email provided a subject for a future back in the day column. Well, this is the back in the day column that had its impetus from that email. Interestingly, many of the occupations highlighted in this email were well before my time; what these workers did to make a living, may still be of interest to you.

Take the job of a lamplighter, someone who was employed during the days of gas-powered street lamps to travel around the streets and fire up the streetlamps each evening. Of course, this was before the days of electric street lamps.

Then there was the job of a knocker-upper! (Now, brothers, do not go there! Take your minds out of the gutter.) This was not a job associated in anyway with men that were intimate with women, causing some unexpected difficulties. Before 1847, when the first mechanical alarm clock was invented, knocker-uppers were employed to go to homes at a designated time and tap the glass of windows with long poles so that the worker would not oversleep.

There were some people that worked as town criers. You may have seen people perform this job in old movies; people that were responsible for using their booming voices to announce important news from street corners.

Another job that employed people at that time was that of rat catcher. I am not making this up. It has been described a job straight out of the fairy tale books. The job involved, what it implies: traveling around trapping rats. I wonder how the discussions went at their dinner tables in the evenings. I can imagine any discussion or mention of this line of work caused one to quickly lose his appetite. A version of the work of a rat catcher exists today. So, fast forward to this day and age as I identify jobs that those that living during the 1940s, 1950s and sixties may have performed, back in the day.

The first job that comes to mind, that was around during my era, was that of switchboard operator. Do you have memories of women, sitting in front of banks of switchboards inserting a phone plug into the appropriate jack to connect a call? In some small businesses, there may have been only one switchboard operator. Whether it was a large or small business, the switchboard operator was the first point of contact for a company or organization. This employee answered the telephone and directed calls to a particular person or department. While there may be someone today performing various duties, which may include routing telephone calls, the job is not what it used to be.

Do you know anyone employed today as an electrical telegraph operator or telegrapher that uses Morse code to transmit messages? More than likely the answer is no. The system was modified and adopted without the electrical telegraph operator but rather through the use of a mechanized system of teleprinters.

Closely related to the telegraph or telegram, were young boys employed as telegram delivery boys who delivered telegrams on bicycles or mopeds. You might recall the rows of desks where clerk typists performed typing duties. This job has vanished as it has been folded into other job descriptions through automation.

There was a time when young ladies applied for jobs as clerk typists in the private and public sectors. These positions were desirable as they used to provide job security. As a result of automation, however, the job has become a relic. In discussing the disappearance of the job with a colleague, he pointed out that it is no wonder that the job has disappeared since typewriters are a clerical tool from back in the day.

Back in the day, elevators required the employment of elevator operators. In visits to large office buildings or to large department stores where the use of elevators is required, many back in the day folks remember a time when elevator operators, often in uniform, manned the elevator. I would suspect that there might still be a manual operator around, not for passengers but for commercial operations. Still many of us have memories of those friendly elevator operators that tried their best to avoid those jerky rides while calling out the offices or departments as they stopped at each floor. I recall reading that the work of elevator operators represented customer service at its finest. But, they are gone!

Back in the day, there were many jobs that involved the delivery of goods and services. Some of you are old enough to remember when milk was delivered to homes. For those that were born after the 1960s, the job of milkman had become extinct. An online article posted Feb. 1, 2018, by Shetler Dairy, titled “What Happened to Milk Delivery” indicated that the milkman was vital due to poor refrigeration. Poor refrigeration made it difficult for people to store their milk for more than one day. Like many jobs of the past, technological advances in refrigeration made this job unnecessary. If you remember the milkman, then you must have memories of the Bread man. William Brighenti in his Jan. 13, 2013 blog, titled “The Milkman, Bread man and Egg man” comments on the jobs of Bread man and Egg man of the past. He pointed out that these jobs existed to accommodate all of the stay-at-home mothers and the home delivery of these staple items allowed mothers to prepare balanced meals each day. I do not recall the egg man but I still have memories of Wonder Bread and Freihofer’s bread being delivered to homes on my block several days a week.

Can you recall other home delivery jobs that existed in the past? What about the diaper man that delivered clean diapers and picked up soiled diapers from homes?

Do you know anyone that works today as a coal man? When is the last time you saw an ice man in your neighborhood using tongs to lug blocks of ice into homes to be placed in an ice box? Many years ago, I bet! Does anyone recall the broom and brush door-to-door salesman?

What about the knife sharpening man? Are there insurance men today who go into homes to collect premium payments? These services in many ways were a convenience for families and a means of employment for the worker, back in the day.

Before printing was digitized, there was a job in the newspaper industry for a typesetter. Also, prior to digital projectors arrived in movie theaters, some people earned a living working as movie theater projectionists. Interestingly, this job disappeared in recent years as most theaters replaced this job with digital projectors. For those of you that were bowling fans in the past, you must recall the pins being set by people employed as pinsetters.

The meter reader that went to houses to read the meters for water, gas and electric disappeared in recent years. The garbage collector that collected garbage from homes in small cans is also gone.

What happened to the television repairman? Today, televisions that do not work go out on the curb to be picked up on trash day. Those that are aficionados of the railroad industry, you may recall the job of signalman that help to managed multiple switches in order for trains to move in the appropriate direction. Just like many other jobs, this too ended when railroad operations were computerized, adding the signalman to the list of jobs from back in the day.

With regard to jobs that existed within the past 50 years, we cannot ignore an important job in the life of people of color. Some of you history buffs may know that once the Civil War ended, newly freed Black soldiers went home and struggled to find paying jobs. According to the Smithsonian, an industrialist named George Pullman wanted to popularize his brand new luxury sleeper trains by employing Pullman porters to shine shoes, make beds and other tasks, although their earnings were minimal. As the luxury train industry lost steam, the Pullman porter workforce began to decline and today is but a part of history buried in the era I refer to as, back in the day. This information is reported by Nicholas Conley in her on-line posting of “Jobs From 50 years Ago That No Longer Exist” at www.grunge.com.

As you reflect on the jobs that are identified in this column, jobs that have disappeared over the past fifty years, you may want to think about jobs today that are the verge of extinction. Do you think that there is a future in a job such as toll collector, bank teller, cashier or parking meter attendant? These jobs are being impacted by technology. Online reports have projected that robots will be taking over jobs such as factory workers, baseball umpires calling balls and strikes, and referees or line judges identifying foul balls. Already we see trash collectors being replaced by curb side dumpsters picking up trash. Classroom teachers are being replaced by online computerized instruction. So, encourage your children, grandchildren and friends to carefully plan their futures for gainful employment. Jobs that we once knew and some jobs that exist today may be like many other jobs that have been left, back in the day.

Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at backintheday@phillytrib.com or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, PA 19146

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